I suppose it was inevitable that the National would try and replicate the enormous success it had with War Horse with another puppet-based show and they’re doing it currently on the stage of the Lyttleton with their brand-new big-budget production of Pinocchio but they’re doing it with a twist.
Pinocchio, the puppet who wants to be a real boy is played by a real boy (Joe Idris-Roberts) and Geppetto who in Carlo Collodi’s original 1883 story is a real man is played by a puppet albeit voiced by Mark Hadfield who along with three others, act as puppeteers for the puppet maker. The other puppets are The Blue Fairy (Annette McLaughlin) who’s also represented by a floating blue flame, Jiminy Cricket (Audrey Brisson), Stromboli (Gershwyn Eustache Jnr) and The Coachman (David Kirkbride). Like Hadfield, those actors not only voice the characters but help them move around the stage.
There are also illusions from Jamie Harrison who did the same for Harry Potter and the Cursed Child (currently running at the Palace Theatre), flying, levitation, floating underwater, a giant whale and a nose that grows and grows! There are also the superb songs from the 1939 Disney animated feature such as “When You Wish Upon A Star”, “I’ve Got No Strings” and “An Actors Life For Me”.
So, if you add all of that up and get Dennis Kelly of Matilda fame to write the book and John Tiffany to direct, the result should be magical but I’m afraid it lacks the wow factor that War Horse and that other Disney masterpiece The Lion King both have in spades. Pinocchio can be seen as a metaphor for life as the naïve Candide-like figure makes his way on a journey through life where he takes bad advice, ignores his father’s wishes, thinks that pleasure is the only thing worth experiencing but finds out it makes an ass of him (quite literally in this case) before coming to the realisation that love and family is really what matters for as The Blue Fairy tells him “Without love you may as well be made of wood”.
I think the problem with this production is like Pinocchio, it has no real heart. It’s all a bit cold (and that’s nothing to do with the weather outside) and it’s quite hard to engage with the characters. A major problem is that though the puppets are superbly designed and for the most part move fluidly around the stage, their mouths don’t move so they don’t really interact with each other. As the actors voicing them are part of the puppetry team and dressed in the same clothes as the puppet, there are times when you don’t know whether to look at the puppet’s head or the actor below manfully voicing and maneuvering the puppet at the same time! Also, none of the characters are warm or engaging. Mark Hadfield does a great job in his dual role as voice and puppeteer of Geppetto but there’s no warmth to the old man who’s desperate to have a son. Joe Idris-Jones’ performance as Pinocchio is just a bit dull with no real light and shade and it’s hard for the audience to have empathy with the character. Annette McLaughlin as The Blue Fairy is cool and distant which is probably what the character needs to be but once again we have a character we can’t warm to.
The character we should really warm to is Pinocchio’s conscience Jiminy Cricket but Audrey Brisson is a bit shrill and charmless which stops us loving what should be a lovable character. Also having a puppeteer help her bring the character to life is just a bit distracting and at times when he wasn’t needed, he just walked away.
Every children’s show needs a villain to hate and here there are three! Stromboli the circus owner who makes Pinocchio a sideshow exhibit, The Coachman who takes Pinocchio to the slightly surreal Pleasure Island to be transformed into a donkey that he can sell and the real stand-out David Langham as The Fox who leads Pinocchio astray on a number of occasions. Langham plays him with an evil, campiness in a long coat, top hat and high heels and is the personification of malevolence and the stuff nightmares are made of.
I really wanted to love Pinocchio as much as I love the Disney film but the tone of the piece was all over the place (did it really need fart jokes?) and even though I had an excellent seat in row K, it all felt a little distant and detached lacking the magic touch. Maybe it needs another Disney character, Tinker Bell to come and sprinkle some fairy dust on it in and raise it above mediocrity.
Review by Alan Fitter
On a quest to be truly alive, Pinocchio leaves Geppetto’s workshop with Jiminy Cricket in tow. Their electrifying adventure takes them from alpine forests to Pleasure Island to the bottom of the ocean.
This spectacular new production is brought to the stage by an extraordinary team including John Tiffany the director of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child and Dennis Kelly the writer of Matilda the Musical.
Featuring unforgettable music and songs from the Walt Disney film including I’ve Got No Strings, Give a Little Whistle and When You Wish Upon a Star in dazzling new arrangements, Pinocchio comes to life as never before.
By Dennis Kelly,
With songs and score from the Walt Disney film
By Leigh Harline, Ned Washington and Paul J Smith
Adapted by Martin Lowe
Running until 10th April 2018.